WASHINGTON — Funding cuts and staffing shortages at the Maryland Department of the Environment over the past decade have coincided with a decline in the state’s ecological health.
The department’s water-related enforcement actions and identification of major polluters plummeted during former Gov. Larry Hogan’s time in office. During this same period, water quality standards in the Chesapeake Bay declined significantly, falling to the same levels as those observed in the early 1990s, according to data from Chesapeake Progress.
Over two decades, the department lost 1 out of every 7 employees, and those positions went unfilled as environmental challenges increased.
“What we saw in 2021 and in prior years was just a really dramatic cutoff (in resources) and Hogan’s initiatives to make sure that state agencies weren’t fully enforcing the law,” said Katlynn Schmitt, a senior analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform. She is one of the authors of the 2022 Chesapeake Accountability Project scorecard — an evaluation of “water-related enforcement trends over the last two decades,” according to its website.
Ben Grumbles, secretary of the environment under Hogan from 2015 until March 2022, disputed allegations of lax water quality enforcement.
“The administration absolutely put an emphasis on compliance and enforcement,” he said. “We imposed and recovered many record-setting penalties. We also had to deal with COVID — we were not able to have on-site inspections because they put our employees at risk.”
However, “when you get much below 1% (funding), that’s when you start to see a lot of pollution problems. … It kind of sends a signal to polluters that you’re not going to get caught,” said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
More than 18 million people live within the Chesapeake watershed, and over 3,600 species of plants and animals call the bay home. The bay is an integral part of the regional economy, providing upward of 500 million pounds of seafood each year. However, commercial fishery stocks in the region have plummeted in recent years.
The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, and its watershed encompasses six states and the District of Columbia. Among these, Maryland provided its environmental protection agency with one of the lowest funding levels in 2020. Only West Virginia allocated a smaller percentage of its general fund to its environmental department.
This low funding has observable results. The 2022 Chesapeake Accountability Project scorecard said that “there has been a dramatic decline in the number of enforcement actions taken by the Water & Science Administration (WSA) (a subsidiary of MDE), the number of sites inspected, and the number of significant violations identified involving environmental or health impacts.”
Though the scorecard says that the Department of the Environment situation has been degrading since the early 2000s, many of the identified changes became more severe during Hogan’s tenure, beginning in 2015.
From 2010-15, the Water and Science Administration took 1,280 enforcement actions against water policy violators; from 2016-21, that number plummeted to less than a third of that, to 422. The number of total site inspections by the administration also fell from almost 29,000 to less than 18,000 in those same time periods.
“So, if your political philosophy is to shrink the size of government and do as little as possible with it, that works great in your favor,” said Myers. “But then, when you get to the point where you’re no longer producing the services the government is supposed to provide — for example, protecting water quality — then it’s really hard to get that funding back.”
The decline in regulatory capacity at MDE coincided with new challenges for the Chesapeake Bay.
In 2022, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave the bay’s health a D-plus rating. The current score of 32/100 is only a marginal improvement over 1998’s inaugural score of 27/100.
Chesapeake Progress found that only 27% of the Chesapeake Bay by surface area had acceptable levels of dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll alpha and water clarity in 2020. This represents a precipitous drop from the monitoring program’s highs in the mid-2010s.
Phosphorus and nitrogen fuel the growth of algae species that thrive at the expense of other marine life. The Choptank River in eastern Maryland in particular was determined to have “degrading” phosphorus and nitrogen load trends, according to Chesapeake Progress, as was the Susquehanna River’s overall long-term sediment trend.
Qian Zhang, an assistant research scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Program who worked on the Chesapeake Progress report, said that the primary source of these nutrient loads are “generally” agricultural facilities and farms.
A May report from Scientific American highlighted the Eastern Shore, home to the Choptank, as a region with many soy and corn farms, as well as chicken farms. According to river conservationist Elle Bassett, these farms can contribute extreme loads of problematic nutrients to water sources during heavy rains — and many are mere miles from the bay itself.
“A lot of pollution slips through the cracks, even with adequate enforcement of the laws,” Schmitt said. “There are far more polluters than there are regulators. So, right now, for instance, in Maryland, every waterway inspector is given approximately 600 facilities that they are accountable for.”
In 2022, there were 53 Department of the Environment inspectors tasked with managing 31,000 permits, according to Schmitt.
There are other emerging challenges beyond nutrient loads that the department needs to tackle, according to experts.
Peter Tango, Chesapeake Bay monitoring coordinator for CBP, said that new working groups are being created to keep tabs on new hydrological threats.
“We recognize that there are new pollutants that are out in the bay that we may not necessarily understand as well as we do with nutrient and sediment pollution,” he said, such as plastics and even toxic chemicals.
Compounding all of this is the looming threat of climate change.
Warmer waters hold less of the vital oxygen that marine life needs to survive. CBF’s interim Maryland executive director Erik Fisher said in February that increased water temperatures mean that the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that needs to be reduced to hit healthy oxygen targets is higher now. Warmer water combined with rising sea levels reducing available freshwater wetlands makes bay restoration a steeper climb.
Gov. Wes Moore’s 2024 budget includes over $5 million in funding for the Environment Department in support of “environmental conservation efforts,” as well as dozens of new positions. Moore’s administration has also increased the general fund allocation to the department by almost $30 million for 2024.
“We face an historic challenge,” Moore said of his administration’s climate goals in April, “and we will tackle it with an all-of-government, an all-of-community and an all-of-state approach.”